Once upon a time in Akola

Dabu printed tunic from 'Dusky Dabu', Shalini James' Mantra

Once upon a time in Akola, an arid little village 60km from the iconic Chittorgarh fort in Rajasthan, a young boy from the Rangrez community was training to be a cloth dyer like his forefathers. Every day he was assigned a new task by his father, the master-dyer. One particularly sunny day, when his friends were playing gilli danda in the neighbouring fields, he was seen trudging around the dyeing shed with a sullen face, gathering fabric that had been spread out flat on the ground. The myrobalan-treated cloth had been basking in the sun for two days, getting soft and ready for dyeing, the dull ochre of the fabric darkening as it dried under the cloudless skies. But our man, his mind more on the game than on the task at hand, was in no mood to notice these things. He hurriedly shoved the gathered-bundles of cloth into a vat dug into the ground, which held the potent indigo brew, and made a dash for the fields to join his friends. Little did he realize that an old mud-stained dhoti – lying in a corner of the shed, discarded by its wearer after an unplanned dip in the Mahi river the previous week – had found its way inadvertently into the same vat, and was all set for a swim that would create history.


Dabu-printed tunic by Shalini James' Mantra
Dabu printed tunic with highlight embroidery.

A few days later, the master dyer, in customary fashion, took a walk around the shed, checking on his son’s progress. His sharp eyes spotted a strange sight. There, lying on the ground amidst a sea of dyed fabric was his missing dhoti – now a glorious shade of blue. This demanded closer inspection, but lo and behold! – a fascinating speckled design had emerged on the cloth in places where the dry mud was peeling off. The mud stuck to the cloth had prevented the dye from seeping in, thereby resulting in a design created by the retention of original colour in certain areas against the backdrop of the rest of the dyed cloth. Thus, on the dirt floor of that shed in Akola, peering over a nearly-tattered dhoti, an errant son and a strict father, sitting on their haunches, discovered by pure serendipity, a technique that was to change the future of block-printing in India.


The Dabu printing technique as a mechanical resist-method was developed in India as early as the 8th century AD. Commonly referred to as the essence of the earth, the resist was a gooey paste made of mud taken from river beds or ponds, bidhan or wheat powder obtained when wheat was eaten by wheat- weevils, Guar gum, lime and water. Wooden blocks were used to print this mud-paste onto cloth, with a soft beating given to its handle; and therein lies the origin of the word, Dabu – from the Hindi word ‘dabaana’, meaning, ‘to press’. An environmentally-friendly process of dyeing and printing, Dabu has found admirers all over the world. Not to be left far behind, one of this season’s collections, ‘Dusky Dabu’, is our tête-à-tête with this craft… and the young’un who accidentally stumbled upon it.




To view the Dusky Dabu look book, click here.

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